Friday, April 30, 2021

The Glass Key (Book) (1931)

After I saw the 1942 film version of The Glass Key, I was anxious to read Dashiell Hammett’s novel that is the basis of the film. (It’s possible I read the novel years ago, but my memory is a bit fuzzy on this point.) The novel is told from the point of view of Ned Beaumont, a gambler and political operative for Paul Madvig, who runs the Voters League. Madvig is helping Senator Ralph Bancroft Henry in his reelection bid, which Madvig also hopes will help him win the heart of the senator’s daughter, Janet. The three male characters—Ned Beaumont, Paul Madvig, and Senator Ralph Bancroft Henry—are willing to do what it takes to advance their own agendas, and that includes ignoring the rules and breaking the law.

I have written two blog posts about the 1942 film adaptation of The Glass Key. Click here for my first blog post; click here for my second post, which I wrote for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 2020 Fall Blogathon: Politics on Film.

Ned Beaumont does have a set of ethics that he bases on loyalty. His friends can count on him, and they reciprocate. And they won’t let the law limit their willingness to help out a friend. As a gambler and Paul Madvig’s friend and political operative, Beaumont is privy to a lot of backroom dealing and politicking. Part of his value to Madvig is his ability to ferret out information and then use it to protect Madvig and their other operatives. Beaumont’s job becomes much more complicated when Taylor Henry, the senator’s son and Janet’s brother, is found murdered.

(This blog post about the novel The Glass Key contains spoilers.)

The novel is much darker than the film. Here are just a few examples of the differences between the two:

Beaumont is a gambler in the novel. His gambling debts are taken care of by Madvig. In the 1942 film, gambling is never mentioned, and Beaumont’s assistance in Madvig’s work doesn’t often stray outside the law.

Taylor Henry’s murderer, his own father, claims that his son’s death was an accident in both the novel and the film, but it’s hard to believe his assertion because of the senator’s political ambition. In the novel, the senator wants to kill Paul Madvig before he can tell the truth to the police about the senator’s role in Taylor’s death.

It’s clear in the novel that Senator Henry wants his daughter Janet to marry Madvig because he needs Madvig’s political maneuvering and loyalty. He never considers his daughter’s feelings because he is mainly interested in his own political future. In the film, Janet agrees to see Madvig because she wants to help her father, at least until the election is over.

In the 1942 film, Taylor Henry’s murderer is brought to justice, and Jeff Gardner is arrested for the murder of Nick Varna. (Gardner works for Varna, who oversees the gambling operations in town.) Murderers are brought to justice, which fits the mandates of the motion picture code in 1942, but what about political corruption? Is Paul Madvig serious when he tells a reporter at the end of the film that anyone he backs is sure to become the next governor? Just how much clout did the head of the Voters League carry in 1942, or earlier if you consider that Dashiell Hammett’s novel was serialized in Black Mask magazine in 1930 and published as a book in 1931? I still wondered about this as I read Hammett’s novel.

I tried to do an online search about voters leagues in general, but I couldn’t find much information. (The only information that came up consistently was about the League of Women Voters.) I wondered if the term voters league was a kinder name for political machine, a term used when politics were run by people like William M. “Boss” Tweed (1823–1878), who ran the political machine called Tammany Hall in New York City. Maybe Paul Madvig’s Voters League was a concept that the film’s writers (and Dashiell Hammett) didn’t feel the need to explain to 1942 viewers because it was common knowledge going by a fictional screen (film) name.

The back cover of the Vintage Book edition that I read describes Paul Madvig as a “ward heeler.” The copy on the back cover was not written by Dashiell Hammett, but I decided to find out what I could about ward heelers; maybe this term was the clue that I needed all along. Here is what Wikipedia has to say on the topic:

A ward heeler is an American urban political operative who works for a political party in a political ward, the smallest electoral subdivision of a city, usually to achieve an election result. A ward heeler may have controlling influence with a small clique in the ward organization. Often, ward heelers have been low-level operatives soliciting votes and performing campaign tasks on behalf of a political boss, including get-out-the-vote efforts, placing campaign signage, coordination of constituent support, etc. In many urban areas, ward heelers also serve as precinct captains.

The term originated during the period of machine politics around the turn of the twentieth century, when powerful political machines in major cities run by political bosses, such as the Tammany Hall organization in New York City, used corruption, such as graft and patronage, to maintain their power. So “ward heeler” has the connotation of a corrupt political operative. As integral players in the “spoils system,” ward heelers were often both recipients and distributors of patronage, illegal benefits from the political machine. Examples of illegal acts which a ward heeler might do include tearing down an opposition party’s posters or paying constituents for their votes. In return for his services, the ward heeler was often given a sinecure job, such as in the city’s civil service, which was controlled by the organization.


Wikipedia’s description certainly fits both Ned Beaumont and Paul Madvig, especially as Hammett portrays them in the novel. I guess a little bit of knowledge about U.S. history helps when it comes to reading Hammett’s novels about detectives and the politically connected.


Click here for more information, and additional links, about ward heelers and machine politics at Wikipedia.

Hammett is said to have written in a fact-filled, objective style. But it’s very hard for any writer to remain objective when he or she uses adjectives and repetition as often as Hammett does. It is true that Hammett almost never allows readers into the inner thoughts and worlds of his characters in The Glass Key, but I didn’t find him all that objective about his characters. For instance, Jeff Gardner is almost always described as “apish” whenever he is mentioned in the novel, and not just the first time, when he is introduced to readers. District Attorney Farr is always “pugnacious,” and his face is represented in varying degrees of “florid.” Toward the end of the novel, Farr’s face is not as red as usual:

Farr did not get up from his desk, did not offer to shake hands. He said: “How do you do, Beaumont? Sit down.” His voice was coldly polite. His pugnacious face was not so red as usual. His eyes were level and hard. (page 182)

I had to wonder why Hammett felt compelled to remind readers of these descriptions. I don’t think he wanted to let readers forget what he thought of his characters, and it never sounded very positive.

Some of Hammett’s characters do show emotion. Those that show the most emotion are most often female. Women, but not the men, it seems, are allowed to be emotional. Opal Madvig, Paul Madvig’s sister, cries on Ned Beaumont’s shoulder after Taylor Henry is murdered. Lee Wilshire, Bernie Despain’s girlfriend, doesn’t like Beaumont and is only too happy to let him know it. Janet Henry needs Ned Beaumont, but he doesn’t seem too interested in her. She believes him to be a man of character, but he is honest with her about how he spends his time. Janet Henry is the one who shows emotion through Hammett’s choice of adjectives, for example:

He smiled. “Then you’re wrong. I’m a gambler and politician’s hanger-on.”

                “I’m not wrong.” A pleading expression came into her eyes. “Please don’t let us quarrel, at least not until we must.” (page 149)

If readers over the decades have chosen to focus only on Hammett’s male characters, a case could be made that they show little to no emotion, and Hammett doesn’t describe what they’re thinking or feeling. But that certainly isn’t true of the female characters in The Glass Key, and readers know what Hammett thinks of his male and female characters because he reminds us again and again.

Of all the pulp novel and detective story writers that I have read so far, Dashiell Hammett may be my least favorite. I say “may” because I haven’t read every pulp novel and detective story, but I have read recently The Glass Key and The Thin Man, both by Hammett, and I didn’t find either one completely engrossing. In fact, I much prefer the 1942 film version of The Glass Key. I have not yet seen the 1935 film version, but I still want to and it’s on my list.

The Glass Key, by Dashiell Hammett    New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989    Originally published in 1931

List of main characters: 

Ned Beaumont, gambler and political operative    Paul Madvig, crooked political boss    Opal Madvig, Paul Madvig’s daughter    Senator Ralph Bancroft Henry, seeking reelection    Janet Henry, Senator Henry’s daughter    Taylor Henry, Senator Henry’s son    Shad O’Rory, local gangster and Paul Madvig’s rival    Bernie Despain, gambler who owes Ned Beaumont money    Lee Wilshire, Despain’s girlfriend    Jack Rumsen, private detective hired by Ned Beaumont    Michael Joseph Farr, district attorney    Jeff Gardner, Shad O’Rory’s bodyguard

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Two of a Kind (1951)

Two of the greats of film noir—Lizabeth Scott and Edmond O’Brien—star in Two of a Kind, which makes the film a real treat for their fans. The film starts as a typical noir, but then the plot takes off in directions that make it hard to predict where it will end up. The film’s plot surprises are another plus.

(This blog post about Two of a Kind contains spoilers.)

The narrative starts with Brandy Kirby at the State Reformatory for Boys. She is meeting with Father Lanahan about one of the reformatory’s former tenants, an orphan named Michael Farrell. Father Lanahan remembers Michael well because he was a bit of troublemaker and well-liked. Brandy wants to find him, and Father Lanahan tells her that Michael left the reformatory the same day that Coney’s Colossal Carnival left town. When Father Lanahan got an anonymous postcard from the carnival, he was almost positive he knew what happened to Michael Farrell.

Brandy’s next stop is the carnival, where she meets Minnie Mitt. Minnie tells Brandy that Michael did indeed join the carnival and helped her with her psychic act. He got into some trouble with the law, however, so he joined the navy. Brandy goes to Washington, D.C., and learns that Michael served with distinction in the military, but his off-duty record was spotty at best. He returned to Los Angeles when he was discharged. Brandy started looking for Michael in Los Angeles and she now returns to Los Angeles.

How did Brandy learn of Michael in the first place? He isn’t all that hard to find once she decides to look for him in particular. People remember him—and fondly it seems, in spite of his faults. But it’s never very clear why Michael was chosen in the first place. Brandy is not looking for Michael because she is related to him or because she cares about him at all. She needs a stand-in for a fraud scheme, and Michael Farrell is the best candidate. Millions of dollars are at stake, which explains her persistence.

Brandy is having an affair with Vincent Mailer, a lawyer for the McIntyres, a rich couple who lost their son years ago. Brandy and Vincent are looking for someone to impersonate the son. When Brandy finds Michael, she offers him a deal, and she is blunt about it:

Michael: “All right, let’s see how deep the water is. What do you need me for?”

Brandy: “I don’t need you, but maybe I can use you.”

But before Brandy tells him any details, she offers him a thick wad of cash and asks him to go along with the initial steps of the plan. Brandy convinces Michael to let her shut her car door on the pinkie finger of his left hand so that he can match the son’s missing pinkie finger down to the first joint. Michael complies: He lets Brandy slam her car door on his finger to make it look like an accident. Then he calmly heads to the emergency room.

Brandy shows up after Michael is discharged from the hospital. She has rented a beach house that comes well stocked with provisions, including Todd, who was with Brandy on the night she and Michael met. Michael can recuperate at the beach house with Todd for company, and the two of them begin to bond.

The tone of the film begins to lighten a bit at this point. For example, Michael’s recuperation includes a scene showing Todd giving Michael a manicure and buffing the end of his left pinkie so that it looks like he injured it years ago instead of days ago. My description makes the scene sound gruesome, but Edmund O’Brien can play it for laughs and it works.

It is several weeks before Michael learns about Vincent Mailer, and he learns about him when Brandy introduces him in person at the beach house. Vincent tells him more details of the story: A wealthy Pasadena couple lost their son many years ago, when the boy was three. His mother fainted on a street in Chicago, and when she came to, the boy was gone. Vincent Mailer is the McIntyres’ attorney. He’s the one who has been looking for the McIntyre boy and the one who came up with the scheme to swindle the McIntyres. If Vincent and Brandy can convince someone to impersonate the son, the son will be able to inherit the McIntyres’ fortune, which he will split with Brandy and Vincent. And maybe Todd? It’s unclear whether the split will be four ways or if Todd is more of a contract worker.

Michael will meet the McIntyres’ niece Kathy first. Brandy will do the introductions because she knows Kathy socially. She and Michael show up at the McIntyre home unannounced, but Kathy is too busy to go out. Later, Michael shows up alone to meet Kathy, but she is still too busy. Michael tries again, this time pretending to be a burglar. He assumes that Kathy will be a bit frightened by his intrusion, but she sees it as a big adventure. Kathy offers some additional comic relief with her decision to devote herself to reforming Michael instead of giving him up to the police.

Michael returns to the beach house very late after spending time with Kathy McIntyre. Vincent, Todd, and Brandy are unhappy that he disappeared without telling them what he was doing or where he was going. But his explanations clear the air because he is advancing the plan as outlined by Vincent and Brandy. Something unexpected has developed, however: Brandy is jealous of Kathy, and Vincent is jealous of Michael.

Kathy brings Michael to meet her uncle, Will McIntyre, after she learns of Michael’s missing fingertip. McIntyre will put investigators on the case, which is fine with Michael. He tells McIntyre the truth about his past. Michael moves into the McIntyre house and will live with them until the investigation is complete. Vincent conducts an investigation for Will McIntyre and lays out all the evidence against Michael Farrell. But Michael has told Mr. McIntyre the whole story already, and the McIntyres are happy to accept him.

The fraud scheme is going as planned, but once again Brandy, Vincent, and Michael have to contend with an unexpected development. The McIntyres believe that Michael is their son, but Mr. McIntyre won’t put him in the will. Vincent then decides that McIntyre has to be killed before his estate can be disbursed to the charities mentioned in his will. Todd will do the job, and he will make it look like an accident. Brandy and Michael are opposed to Vincent’s new plan. They’re grifters, not murderers. And Michael has grown to like Mr. McIntyre.

The film seems to be returning to its noir beginnings. The romantic entanglements and the little bits of humor are overshadowed now by greed and betrayal. Vincent wants the money, and Michael and Brandy know too much to abandon the plan now. Two of a Kind is a short film, but even at this point, it still has some surprises. Some of the most surprising twists occur in the last fifteen minutes or so.

I enjoy films and books that can surprise me, and Two of a Kind is full of surprises. I enjoyed all the plot twists, and it was a lot of fun to see Lizabeth Scott and Edmund O’Brien working together on such an outlandish caper, as Michael Farrell calls it. By the end of the film, I almost forgot that I was watching a film noir, which is hard to believe considering the lengths to which both Brandy and Michael are willing to go to swindle an elderly couple.

Michael and especially Brandy are let off the hook too easily by the film’s end. Their respective characters start out tarnished, and the narrative is gritty at first, but the film ends more like a romance. One of the characters tells Brandy that she shouldn’t have gotten mixed up with Vincent Mailer in the first place. Is it because she is the lone woman involved in the scheme? But she was more than willing to go along with his plot to steal millions from the McIntyres. And Michael is asked to join another con of sorts when Mr. McIntyre asks him one more favor. It’s true that this one is offered with benevolent intentions, but technically it’s still a con. Brandy’s and Michael’s absolution is part of the film’s somewhat quick wrap-up, and yet it’s oddly satisfying. It allows the characters to stay true to themselves.

In my last blog post about Between Midnight and Dawn, I noted that Edmond O’Brien gets the girl. And he does in Two of a Kind, too. That’s what I love about film noir: You can never really be sure what’s going to happen until it’s over. Sort of like baseball according to Yogi Berra. You know what I mean. (“It ain’t over till it’s over.”)

June 29, 1951 (New York City), July 1951 (general/wide) release dates    Directed by Henry Levin    Screenplay by Lawrence Kimble, James Gunn    Based on the story by James Edward Grant    Music by George Dunning    Edited by Charles Nelson    Cinematography by Burnett Guffey

Edmond O’Brien as Michael (aka Lefty) Farrell    Lizabeth Scott as Brandy Kirby    Terry Moore as Kathy McIntyre    Alexander Knox as Vincent Mailer    Griff Barnett as William McIntyre    Robert Anderson as Todd    Virginia Brissac as Maida McIntyre    Claire Carleton as Minnie Mitt    J. M. Kerrigan as Father Lanahan    Louis Jean Heydt as the navy chief petty officer    Emory Parnell as the deputy officer

Distributed by Columbia Pictures    Produced by Columbia Pictures